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Development of the Continuous Aspect

Development of Analytical Forms

Changes in the System of the Verb in New English

The evolution of the verbs in Middle E. and in Early N.E. reveals a strong tendency towards greater regularity and order. In New English the process of breaking down of the strong verbs becomes even more intensive. A number of strong verbs became obsolete (rare); a lot of strong verbs fell into disuse. A lot of strong verbs became weak.

Parallel to this the growth of the number of weak verbs is observed. The O.E. weak verbs of class III either joined the other classes of weak verbs (e.g. O.E. weak verbs of the 3rd class or passed to the 1st class: OE libban > M.E. 1st class liven) or became irregular (O.E. habban > Mid.E. haven – N.E. have).

A considerable growth of weak verbs was observed mainly due to the French borrowings (< Latin): verbs ending in – ute, such as distribute, contribute;verbs in – ate, such as create, demonstrate, conjugate, concentrate;verbs in – ish, such as finish, perish, diminish, flourish, distinguish.

OE writan-wrat(past sg.)-writon (past pl.)–written (past participle) > Mid. E. wrat– past tense.

The marker of the past tense and Participle II employed by the weak verbs –the dental suffix –d / - t proved to be very productive in all historical periods. This simple and regular way of form-building attracted hundreds of new verbs in M.E and N. E. As mentioned above, many strong verbs began to build weak forms alongside strong ones, the strong forms ultimately falling into disuse.

The evolution of the verb system was not confined to the simplification of conjugation. In ME and NE the verb paradigm expanded owing to the formation of new grammatical categories. A simple comparison of the number of categories in OE with their number in NE and today shows the changes. Leaving out the categories of Number and Person we can say that OE verbs had two grammatical categories: Mood and Tense.. In Modern E. the finite verb has five categories: Mood, Tense, Aspect, Time-Correlation and Voice. All the new forms which have been included into the paradigm of the verb are analytical forms. All the synthetic forms are the direct descendants of OE forms, for no new synthetic forms have been developed since the OE period.

The problem of the formation of the Continuous Aspect is of great complexity and is still a matter of discussion. Constructions composed of the copulative verb beon/ wesanand Participle I occur even in O.E. especially in the translations from Latin.

O.E. He wæs lærende (He was teaching)

He wæs sprechende (He was speaking)

He wæs feohtende (He was fighting)

In early Mid.E. progressive forms are distinctly rare, their number increases in the course of Mid.E. (since the 16th century). However neither in O.E. nor in Mid.E. these constructions were established as analytical forms as it is the case in N.E.

Unlike O.E. and Mid.E. in N.E. a rapid growth of the continuous forms is observed which was probably aided by the simultaneous development of the gerund and especially such gerundial constructions as He was fighting.In New E. side by side with theconstruction with participleI (He was fighting)parallel construction He was on fighting came to be used. The preposition on used in the gerundial construction imparted a special meaning showing that the subject is in the act of doing something whereas the older descriptive construction with the participle (He wæs feohtende) denoted some general ability characteristic of the subject and therefore expressed the meaning of a permanent action.

Gradually the form of the preposition on used before the gerund weakened to a (He was afighting)and finally these two forms (He wæsfighting and He wæs afighting) fused (got blended) into one. Before the fusion took place the construction He was fighting was somewhat ambiguous: it was not clear whether it showed an action in process or a permanent characteristics, an occupation of the subject. In Modern English there are similar cases, for example, the phrase She is amusing has different meaningsin such sentences as: She is amusing her guests. (an action in progress) and She is very amusing (permanent characteristics).

Thus, the new compound analytical form acquired a new meaning: the vividness of the action, the action in process which led to the development of the meaning of an action limited in time, this being one of the characteristic features of the Continuous Aspect in Modern English.

Owing to the fact that the new analytical form acquired a new meaning the older synthetic form which continued to be used side by side with the analytical one acquired a new meaning too. In this way the so-called Indefiniteand Continuous formscame to be differentiated from the point of view of Aspect. (the way the action is shown to proceed). This gave rise to a new category – the category of aspect.

The category of aspect was formed in Mid.E. on the basis of the free combination of ben (beon) + present participle:

Mid.E. Singinge he was … al the dai.

(he was singing all the day)

It is worth noting that aspect differentiation existed in O.E. where the verb had 2 aspects: perfective and imperfective.

O.E. writan – писать gewritan – написать

singan – петьgesingan – спеть

This differentiation, however, was far from being perfect in many respects as the verbal prefix of the perfective aspect at the same time denoted differences in meaning. Therefore the old system of aspect broke down. With the development of the continuous, the aspect came into being again as a grammatical category.


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